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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 22 / 50





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once the narrator realizes that this portion of the biography is unusable. Trellis is a middle-aged writer very much alive within the narrator’s manuscript and this post-mortem report does not fit his novel. Of course, considering the narrator’s lack of editing, this mistake may never be caught. Besides the mention of drinking, all that this biographical section gives is a physical description of Beatty, with such vague facts as "In person he was of the middle size, of a broad square make" (40).

The borrowed description of Trellis is also redundant when compared to an earlier one given by the narrator to Brinsley:

Dermot Trellis was a man of average stature but his own person was flabby and unattractive, partly a result of his having remained in bed for a period of twenty years. He was voluntarily bed-ridden and suffered from no organic or other illness.... His legs were puffed and affected with a prickly heat, a result of wearing his woollen undertrunks in bed. (34-5)

This passage gives an adequate description of Trellis’ appearance; the narrator’s borrowed description is in line with attributes already ascribed to him, but these two separate descriptions are still essentially useless in advancing the narrator’s story.

The narrator creates an environment for Trellis to work in: the Red Swan hotel. This home has advantages over the narrator’s realistic Dublin; through the acting out of the narrator’s theory, Trellis’ characters are actually physically present and employed to fulfill the plot of Trellis’ novel. In the bizarre world of the narrator’s manuscript, they must be housed somewhere, as they are Trellis’ responsibility while he requires them for his text. The Red Swan is important because the narrator uses it as a physical representation of his manuscript as a whole. At the same time, At Swim-Two-Birds’ structure is also displayed by this hotel’s shape. This is an example of the novel’s reflexivity; an object within the narrator’s text unwittingly helps to explain or diagram the entire novel that surrounds it.

third floor


second floor


first floor

ground floor

cellar figure 1: diagram of the Red Swan Inn

The Red Swan is "a large building of four stories" (34); even if one ignores this pun, one remembers that At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel with four narrative planes. What is only quickly mentioned, though, is an important notice that there is also a "cellar ... full of leprechauns" (47).


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